Monday, August 6, 2007

Remarks on The Myths of Innovation

The Myths of Innovation
Scott Berkun

O’Reilly Media, Inc. 2007

This is a short, readable little book about the current state of thinking about the concept of “innovation.” In it, he addresses what he’s identified as the conventional wisdom on innovation from a variety of perspectives: historical, process, outcomes. Some of the myths could be summarized in this way.

  • Popular stories about inventors claim that great ideas, including problem and solution, spring fully formed into the inventor’s head in a moment of “epiphany.” In fact, according to Berkun, this almost never occurs.
  • The published histories of invention usually describe a straight line between idea and realization. The real histories of inventions are often littered with false starts, dead ends, and bad decisions; the published histories tend to leave out the messiness and uncertainty.
  • We’ve all been conditioned to believe that great ideas sell themselves, and we become discouraged if our ideas aren't recognized immediately for their value. In truth, people (customers, clients, investors) usually fear truly innovative ideas.
  • The more impressive the manager’s title, the better their ideas. Managers are managers because they produce, recognize, and properly evaluate innovative ideas.

In short, our understanding of how innovation occurs is wrong, and therefore our ability to judge innovation in the present is faulty. Berkun debunks these myths with an excellent selection of anecdotes and research into the history of innovation to support his thesis.

So how should we judge whether an idea or product is innovative? Judgment is best applied in retrospect, after the idea or product has been accepted or rejected. In the present, it’s impossible to tell whether an idea is innovative, in part due to the myths we subscribe to about innovation. What the author is doing is applying the Darwinian theory of natural selection to the domain of product innovation. Products are placed on market and fail or succeed based not only on the features of the product but on the characteristics of the environment, i.e., the marketplace, or what the environment is selecting for. An innovative product may fail in the current environment, but succeed later, when the environment has changed. It is only in retrospect that we are able to view the product as innovative, because it has succeeded.

Berkun’s book is an easy, but thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the topics of innovation and product design. Recommended.

[This post was reprinted in the Triangle Usability Professional Association's (TriUPA) Fall 2007 newsletter.]

No comments: